Cutting Ties: Is Your Relationship With Your Parent Toxic?

Dr. Serenity
April 13, 2023

Navigating Toxic Parental Relationships: Is Cutting Ties the Right Move for You?

When it comes to our parents, our bonds with them can run deep and persist even through difficult times. But what happens when those bonds are tested and abused? According to Joseph Spinazzola, PhD, a psychologist in Melrose, Massachusetts, and managing director of the Complex Trauma Treatment Center in Boston, our strong attachment needs make it difficult to address a parent’s bad behavior, which can lead to trauma and pain.

Child actor and iCarly star Jennette McCurdy’s memoir, Iā€™m Glad My Mom Died, shed light on the many different ways parents can abuse their children. McCurdy’s mother, Debra McCurdy, physically, sexually, and emotionally abused her until her death from breast cancer in 2013. Even though McCurdy no longer has to deal with her mother’s toxic presence, she’s still processing the trauma she carries from their relationship.

This has sparked a conversation about how adult children can work on healing past traumas, with or without their parents in their lives. Here, mental health experts, including Dr. Spinazzola, break down how to determine whether your relationship with a parent is toxic and what to do about it as an adult.


Exploring the Fine Line Between Tough Love and Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse, unlike physical and sexual abuse, can be a little more difficult to identify. There is a thin line between a tough parenting style and problematic behavior, making it important to understand the difference. Naiylah Warren, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Brooklyn, New York, explains that the difference between tough love and emotional abuse often lies in the context.

Toxic behaviors, such as sexual abuse and violence, are always considered abusive, regardless of context. However, Warren emphasizes that every family system has its own view of what constitutes toxic behavior based on various factors, including social norms, family traditions, and customs.

Different parents have different parenting styles, with some opting for a tough-love approach. While strict and authoritarian parenting may not always be toxic, experts suggest that it can be used to mask bad behavior. Bruce Bassi, MD, a psychiatrist in Jacksonville, Florida, and the medical director of TelepsychHealth, has run therapy groups for adults who were abused as children. He explains that certain behaviors can qualify as tough love or abuse, depending on the context, and that the line between the two can be blurry and depends on the parent’s intent and mindset and the situation at hand.

Defining Child Abuse

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), child abuse includes any type of physical violence or sexual acts, as well as child neglect. These behaviors always constitute abuse. The APA counts all the following as acts of abuse:

  • Shaking, shoving, slapping, or hitting
  • Beating with a belt or other object
  • Burning with matches or cigarettes
  • Scalding with water that’s too hot
  • Pulling a child’s hair out
  • Not letting a child eat, drink, or use the bathroom when needed
  • Fondling a child’s genitals or having a child touch an older person’s genitals
  • Having intercourse or oral sex with a child
  • Having sex in front of a child
  • Using a child in pornography, or showing pornography or other X-rated materials to a child
  • Not meeting a child’s basic needs (food, shelter, adequate clothing, a decent place to sleep)
  • Leaving a child unwatched or in an unsafe place
  • Not seeking necessary medical attention for a child
  • Not having a child attend school

Recognizing Red Flags

If you experience something that’s not on this list and are unsure whether it was abuse, Dr. Bassi and Warren suggest that the following behaviors can also be red flags:

  • A parent not showing much empathy unless you’re really sick
  • Heavy enmeshment, which refers to a relationship that prevents individuals from having a sense of personal identity
  • A parent who uses coercion to force a child to take sides during a conflict to avoid punishment
  • A parent who puts pressure on a child to make money for the family
  • A parent who constantly compares their child to others in front of the child, leading to severe insecurity and resentment

In conclusion, it’s important to understand the difference between tough love and abusive behavior, especially when it comes to emotional abuse. While certain behaviors are always abusive, such as sexual abuse and violence, determining whether a parenting style is tough love or abuse depends on the context and the parent’s intent and mindset. If you or someone you know is experiencing abusive behavior, it’s essential to seek help from a licensed mental health professional.


Why Acknowledging Past Abuses Later On Can Be Challenging

Even in adulthood, individuals who are no longer dependent on their parents and have a better understanding of abusive and toxic relationships may still find it challenging to acknowledge that their parents were abusive. This difficulty may arise due to several factors.

Recall Bias and Traumatic Childhood Memories

According to Bassi, recall bias tends to make people remember the most significant events – both positive and negative. The American Psychological Association (APA) defines recall bias as a reporting of a past behavior or event that includes both accurate and inaccurate aspects. Typically, people either overestimate or underestimate the frequency of certain behaviors that occurred.

Regarding traumatic childhood memories, someone who experienced overt physical abuse as a child will likely remember that abuse as a significant part of their relationship with their parents. In contrast, someone who experienced subtle abuse, such as emotional manipulation or coercion, might not recognize their parents as abusive. This is because they tend to remember more positive memories that overshadow the negative ones.

The Benefit of the Doubt

It’s natural for individuals to give their parents the benefit of the doubt. As Bassi points out, children enter the world trusting their parents, who provide food, shelter, and basic necessities. The child wants to believe that their parent’s behaviors are for their own good.

Concluding Thoughts

In conclusion, acknowledging past abuse can be a difficult process for individuals, even in adulthood. This challenge can arise from recall bias, traumatic childhood memories, and the benefit of the doubt that individuals may give their parents.


Navigating Toxic Parent Relationships: To Mend or Cut Ties

Childhood abuse, whether from a parent or someone else, can cause lasting trauma with long-term effects. Studies suggest that adults who experienced physical abuse as children may be at twice the risk of depression and anxiety and have a higher likelihood of developing various health conditions such as diabetes, cancer, migraines, arthritis, heart disease, and COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease). Emotional abuse as a child is also associated with a higher likelihood of depression and depressive symptoms as an adult.

According to Dr. Joseph Spinazzola, a clinical psychologist and executive director of the Foundation Trust, deciding whether to mend or cut ties with an abusive parent is ultimately up to the survivor of the abuse. While it’s common for offending parents to want to reconcile, it’s never the adult child’s responsibility to assuage the parent’s guilt. The decision to mend or cut ties should be based on the survivor’s well-being, choice, power, and safety.

Mending Ties: Reasons and Requirements

Some adult children may choose to mend their relationship with their abusive parent because the lack of a parent-child relationship has left a void that they cannot fill. However, Dr. Spinazzola cautions that healing the relationship isn’t a guarantee that the adult child’s relational attachments will improve or that other problems will disappear. For relationship healing to occur, the abusive parent must:

  • Acknowledge the harm they’ve done in the past
  • Address any issues that contributed to the abuse, such as addiction, depression, or intergenerational trauma

When to Cut Ties

Again, it’s up to the adult child to decide whether or not to cut ties with an abusive parent, and this decision can change over time. According to Dr. Spinazzola and Dr. Silvia Bassi, a clinical psychologist and trauma expert, if the offending parent:

  • Reacts overactively or is easily irritated when the adult child shares their feelings and experiences
  • Refuses to acknowledge their abusive behavior
  • Centers healing conversations around their own interests or guilt
  • Disrespects the adult child’s opinions or differences
  • Rarely shows empathy or refuses to acknowledge the adult child’s trauma
  • Ignores boundaries even after repeated explanations of how to treat the adult child

It might be best to cut ties. Even if the abusive parent has good intentions and has addressed their issues, continuing the relationship may still feel triggering to the adult child. In such cases, the adult child can choose to process their feelings in therapy and consider mending the relationship later, or not.

Reassessing Ties

If the adult child does cut ties with their abusive parent, they can reassess their decision in the future, especially in situations like a parent’s dire health condition or terminal illness. In such cases, seeking help from a close friend, trusted family member, or therapist can help the adult child figure out how to communicate with their parent.

Seeking Help

As the adult child of an abusive parent, processing past trauma while deciding how to move forward can be challenging. Seeking help from a mental health professional, such as a therapist or counselor, can help work through any trauma, improve personal healing, and ultimately improve well-being, even if the adult child decides not to mend or cut ties with their abusive parent.

Author Dr. Serenity

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